Nairobi — The gathering environmental crisis presented by global warming makes effective weather information and prediction a matter of urgency. As Africa's farmers come to grips with adapting to climate change, it may be that the best way to equip them is to involve them directly in collecting the data.
Evidence presented to the first conference of ministers responsible for meteorology in Africa, taking place in Nairobi, Kenya from Apr 12-16, shows that countries which have involved local communities in monitoring of climatic conditions have markedly better outcomes in terms of improved agricultural yields and public health.
African governments may need to localise meteorological services from the monitoring level, through data analysis, to dissemination, in order for weather and climate information to make sense to the people who need it most in agriculture and related sectors.
The need for the information is pressing.
"For years, African communities have used traditional methods of predicting climatic conditions. But in the wake of climate change, it is no longer easy for them to use natural indicators to determine the same," said Issa Djire, the director of the Upper Niger River Valley Programme (OHVN in French, Office de la Haute Vallée du Niger) based in Bamako, Mali.
The past 40 years have seen both increased flooding and desertification in Mali. The country's national action programme for adaptation expects average temperatures to rise between 1 and 3.5 degrees by 2060. With nearly three quarters of the population living in rural areas, sustainable land management is a primary challenge. According to the UNDP, effects of global warming have already contributed to mass migration to urban centres.
Earlier in April, the Red Cross said it was nearly tripling food aid to Niger and Mali, citing government estimates that more than 250,000 people in northern Mali are facing food shortages due to drought. The situation in neighbouring Niger is worse, with half of the population of 16 million affected by food insecurity.
Twelve years ago, Mali adopted a new system in which rain monitoring is carried out entirely at the local level. Thousands of rain gauges are located in villages, and community members are involved in collection and analysis of rain patterns.
The information is then passed on at community meetings and through community radio stations broadcasting in local languages.
"Packaging of the information is extremely important. The farmers will use it accurately only if they understand it fully," Djire told IPS at the conference.
"Local monitoring of rainfall patterns has boosted preparedness among farmers, and through agricultural extension officers, they have been able to determine exactly the type of seed they should plant, when to plant them, and the insecticides they need to buy in advance," said Djire.
Meteorologists at the conference want other African governments to emulate Mali's strategy as a method of improving resilience to the impact of climate change.
"Collecting meteorological data is extremely expensive. Yet it is pointless if the data does not benefit the end user, who in most cases is a peasant farmer in a remote village," said Alhassane Adama Diallo, the director general of the African Centre of Meteorology Applications for Development (ACMAD).
Diallo said that Africa has only an eighth the required number of meteorological stations as per the standards of the World Meteorology Organisation. He said governments must set aside funds to be used for meteorological services as part of plan for disaster management.
Dr Joseph Mukabana, director of Kenya's Meteorological Department, says his country has adopted a new focus on meteorology at the provincial level. "We realised that we were not getting very accurate information when we were monitoring at a national level," he said.
Kenya needs roughly 70 meteorological stations to deliver accurate predictions, but it currently has only 37.
Yet Kenya is considered one of the continent's leaders in gathering weather information.
To boost weather and climate monitoring systems in Africa, the African Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank have agreed to provide 155 million dollars through ACMAD.
"We have already signed for the first $30 million, which is expected to be on the ground in different countries by next month," said Diallo.
The money will be used to train and re-train experts across the continent in better processing and analysis of climate data, and to strengthen communication strategies to reach farmers in a format they can understand.
The importance of meteorological services is not limited to agriculture and food security. Climate is important for the monitoring and management of public health, for example where diseases such as malaria may spread to new areas as average temperatures and rainfall shift.
Transport - particularly the aviation industry - water resources management, energy and tourism are other sectors that can benefit from improved weather observation and reporting.